Stay Safe in New Zealand’s National Parks

Is New Zealand safe? A question asked by many. Well frankly, no its not, not if you intend to leave your brains at home.  Most overseas visitors come to New Zealand for the “great outdoors”, the “wilderness experience” or to part take in our famous “adventure tourism”. A lot of them visit one more National Parks. A few of them die, more have unpleasant experiences, which could have been avoided with a little knowledge, and a lot more application of the above-mentioned brains.

Adventure tourism is not without its issues – but generally your chance of dying while bungy jumping, jet boat riding, parasailing, sky diving or skiing, are fairly low. Although its not as safe as doing a ride in a theme park – its still pretty safe. New Zealand had safety standards that apply to tourism operators. The guides will be trained, will have appropriate safety gear, and although there is the appearance of danger, there is virtually no real risk.

However if you head out alone, or with mates to our free National Parks, things get a little more dodgy.  Maybe NZ tourism needs to be a bit clearer – NZ’s great outdoors – is world-class, but its natural, it comes with risks. We don’t have bears or crocodiles, but you don’t need wildlife to kill tourists.

The scenery will do that – all by itself.

Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro  from Mt Taranaki (Egmont)

The area of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing - from Mt Taranaki (Egmont)

And then you can do something really dangerous. Like the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It used to be just the plain Tongariro Crossing, but it was renamed a few years ago, after a number of deaths, its kinda of a hint for the visitor: “alpine” as in mountains. Above the tree line, above the bush line, totally exposed to all the weather, where it can snow in summer. Although most brochure pictures tend towards the spectacular, the problem is, that when the weather changes, you don’t just lose a photo op, you can lose your life.

Read this post from a visitor crossing in February, one of the warmest months in New Zealand  – they struggled to find the track and struggled with the wind and very low visibility – it all ended well but the author mentions she was too scared to take photos at one point – and she was right to be.  More recently a group of 16 very nearly died, in fact almost certainly some would have died but two well equipped trampers risked their own lives to bring the group down to safety. That’s right – not only going out on a mountain dressed in jeans and cotton risk your life, it risks the lives of strangers who may help you, and the professionals who come to save you. Although I do disagree with the local debate that the transport operator had a moral duty to stop them. I do think that tourism operators have a responsibility to inform tourists that Tongariro is an alpine crossing, where you always need to carry layers of warm and water proof clothing, where you need to wear boots (not shoes) and if you can’t walk nearly 20km on flat land you shouldn’t even attempt the crossing. There are plenty of shorter and easier options in the area

Thirty percent of overseas visitors to New Zealand visit a National Park. Not one of those National Parks are a theme park. They are natural, and they are remote. I remember being very surprised the first time I ever went to a US National Park – I arrived at Joshua Tree, and was stopped and checked by officers, ensuring that I had maps and water, and this was in a park with sealed roads, and I was driving a late-model car!

New Zealand National Parks don’t generally have roads, they have no one checking that you have water with you (hint, volcanoes aren’t good places to expect to find water to drink, BYO).

Quick Facts About New Zealand National Parks 

  • They are free for all to access, including tourists. Some of us think this is fairly outrageous – but there you go, take advantage while you can.
  • They are not controlled. They are not closed because the weather is bad. There are no guides for walks – unless you arrange for a guide in advance (which is entirely possible on many of the more popular walks). But if you chose to do it yourself and on your own – you, and only you are responsible for your safety.
  • A cell phone is a not a reliable form of communication, anywhere in NZ, particularly not in a National Park. If you have coverage that’s a bonus, not a given. If you want reliable communications in the New Zealand bush you need either a radio, or more realistically a personal locator beacon (which can be hired for under $10/day).
  • There are cheap camp grounds in many parks, the more accessible ones are VERY popular, you’ll need to book anywhere near a New Zealand school holiday. There are huts on some tracks, they are reasonably priced but can be very busy and are basic (no cooking facilities).
  • If you are walking, anywhere, you notify someone of your intentions.  Now some parks require you to do this online, this is stupid at many levels, starting with the lack of cellphone coverage in many parks. It also requires the person you tell your intentions to, to take responsibility for informing NZ Police if you don’t return. Given the time zone issues, plus the form is only in English – it should work REALLY well!
  • The good news is that if you are rescued you won’t be charged (though this is hot topic for debate in New Zealand).
  • If you are injured in a National Park (or anywhere in New Zealand) you are covered by New Zealand’s no-fault accident insurance cover ACC. That means that you will get free hospital and medical care. It also means you can’t sue anyone over your accident.
  • Just because “everyone else” is doing something doesn’t mean its safe.  Up to 1000 people a day walk the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, mostly overseas visitors, that doesn’t make it safe, or easy.


  1. Philip on May 8, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    It was definitely not easy. As a hiker with over a half century experience, I am often appalled by the lack of preparedness of some ‘hikers,’ eg. seeing a hiker on Mt. Whitney with no water bottle and only sneakers and running shorts…come on! The crossing was awesome and I will never forget it. Can’t wait to blog about it. But I was prepared for much worse than I experienced.

    • Elisabeth on May 9, 2012 at 11:29 pm

      You said the magic words Philip “you were prepared for the worst” – that’s the point a helluva lot of young backpackers seem to miss !

  2. Vi on May 9, 2012 at 11:20 pm

    I almost got lost on Mt. Taranaki. It was nothing close to visibility in your above picture and if clouds come done you can’t see anything.

    • Elisabeth on May 9, 2012 at 11:29 pm

      It was a stunningly clear day – that’s why we drove up to the headquarters which is where I took the shot. A few days earlier driving up – we couldn’t even see the mountain !

  3. Just One Boomer (Suzanne) on January 13, 2013 at 9:50 pm

    I hope all the weekend warriors who visit New Zealand will read this post before they head out unprepared. As you mentioned, it is possible to do “guided hikes” which is what you should do if you’re a novice wilderness hiker. We did a guided hike on the Milford Track in 2002 which is still one of our favorite all time travel experiences. I even wanted to blog about it — ten years after the fact. I even had to scan in photos since we did the trip before we had a digital camera. Here was my take on “tramping” the Milford Track.

    • Elisabeth Sowerbutts on January 13, 2013 at 10:00 pm

      I did Milford about 10 years before you – so I’d have to unstick my photos from the album to scan them in 🙂 It’s an awesome walk, one of the safer ones actually as it’s so popular and there is really no way you can get lost. We are actually heading back to that part of the country next weekend – first time in 20 years – I’m bad at seeing my own country!

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